Monday, December 19, 2011

Bench Full of Nothing

If you missed the Manchester City vs Arsenal match on Sunday then I feel nothing but pity for you as it was one of the most entertaining matches I've watched all year. The soccer haters will scoff at calling a 1-0 match entertaining, but this was a game with chance after chance where the score could just as easily have ended 5-4 (and perhaps should have, depending on your opinion on the finishing versus the defense). Arsenal fans should take heart as this is a match that the Gunners could easily have won if certain plays had luck change just a bit in Arsenal's direction. Having said that, Manchester City was the better team yesterday and if luck had gone just a bit more in their direction, we could be talking about a 4-0 walkover instead. Arsenal did look a bit scattered at times on defense, but that is unfortunately to be expected with four fullbacks hurt and therefore Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen playing out of position on the flanks. The offense created chances but could not finish, except for the one beautiful chip by Robin Van Persie that was correctly called back for offsides. All of these things happened and plenty more, but rather than giving a blow by blow report of what transpired or breaking down specific aspects of the game, I'd like to harp on the reason I believe Arsenal lost this match: depth.

To regular readers of this blog, I'm sure I sound like a broken record. I've mentioned time and time again how Arsenal is incredibly thin in the back, how they don't have a suitable back-up for Van Persie, how they need to make moves in the January transfer window, and so on and so on. But in this case, I'd like to point to the Gunners' lack of depth with a much more concrete example from Sunday's match. In the 65th minute or so, Arsenal was down one to City and of course there was no reason to assume that Arsene Wenger wouldn't go full out for the draw, or even win, playing away against the league leaders. The question then became, who would he send into the game to try to get the equalizer? As I asked myself this question, my heart sank. I could not think of a single player who was the go-to instant offense for a situation like this. Then I sat upright in excitement because I realized that this was the perfect environment to send Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in: low pressure (can't really fault a team for losing by a goal away to the best team in the league), high impact (tons of pace down the wing in a game where one goal changes everything), and absolutely up in the air. Imagine my dismay when I checked the roster for the match and saw that he wasn't even available as a substitute. As you know, I am generally a defender of Arsene Wenger and his style of managing. This, however, is the main area in which he and I disagree this year. I cannot understand for the life of me why Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn't get more run with the side, or at least why he's not even available in most games. He has shown great talent and poise thus far in his young career and he is the perfect player for these types of games, where the Gunners need some spark and a goal. But he wasn't even available. Arsene, I don't understand it.

Instead, our glorious leader went with Andrei Arshavin and things just went downhill from there. I understand the introduction of Arshavin. When at his best, he provides speed and quickness, can create offense out of nothing, and will run hard at a tired defense. But let's be frank: Arshavin has not been at his best for the better part of the last two seasons. I don't know if this is who he actually is now that teams are used to playing against him or if he just has an atrocious case of the yips, but the Russian is simply no longer a viable option. His play in Manchester was abominable and Wenger should think long and hard about how much time Arshavin actually should see. Perhaps it's time to put some feelers out to Anzhi Makhachkala...?

Marouane Chamakh was the other substitute used (aside from Ignasi Miquel, but that was a forced substitution when Djourou went down with an injury) and though he doesn't deserve his own section, I'm going to give him one anyway. The problem with using Chamakh as a substitute in this kind of game is that he's a poor man's Robin Van Persie. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. He is a single-mother-working-three-jobs-to-keep-food-on-the-table-for-her-four-children-while-trying-to-fend-off-the-advances-of-her-over-aggressive-boss-but-keeping-from-losing-her-job's Robin Van Persie. While that might be fine for Carling Cup matches or meaningless Champions League games where the group is already wrapped up (or just resting Van Persie in general), Chamakh simply doesn't fit into a match where Arsenal is behind and Van Persie is still playing. Aside from his poor form for the last year, he doesn't bring anything to the table and doesn't mesh right with the rest of the tactics. So when you see him warming up on the sidelines, it doesn't exactly make an Arsenal fan think "ok, we still have a shot at this thing."

The rest of the bench yesterday varies from "he doesn't do what we need right now" to "dear god no, not him!!" For the record, I view Emmanuel Frimpong as the former and Tomas Rosicky as the latter. The aforementioned Miquel is an interesting player who I think might have a future with the Gunners, but he isn't an attacking option that you bring into a match like this. I still haven't given up on Yossi Benayoun and if in the future Arsenal needs to bring on an experienced winger, I do hope Benayoun gets the call over Arshavin, but he isn't exactly a spark of energy at a desperate time. He's more the type of player who will see duty when Gervinho departs for national team duty. So who does that leave? Aside from Oxlade-Chamberlain, no one. There are some younger players that might grow into the role, and when Jack Wilshere comes back that will help since most likely there will be a rotation between him, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, but as of now Arsenal doesn't have the players for every situation.

With the loss at Manchester City, the depth issue has gone beyond the realm of "just in case someone gets hurt" or "when we need to rest a player." Arsenal's lack of an offensive substitute may have cost them three points on Sunday as the game was still there for the taking up to the very last second. I know that Arsene Wenger believes in his squad and I fully agree if he's limiting that belief to his starting squad. But the bench is not good enough and the Gunners can't afford to drop anymore points going forward. Here's hoping he has the good sense to find some upgrades during January.

Game Notes

-Aside from his nice effort on goal in the 56th minute or so, Theo Walcott was invisible during the big clash with Man City. It should be noted that he has been a big factor in many of Arsenal's games this year, most notably the win over Chelsea, so it is not my intention to bring up tired old stereotypes of Walcott's ability. But his absence was notable in a game where most people expected Arsenal to exploit City on the wings using the pace of Walcott and Gervinho. The Ivorian did his job but Walcott seemed lost during the game, never calling for the ball or making himself a part of the play. One game is excusable, even if it's a big one, but please don't make this a habit, Theo.

-I never thought I would lament an injury to Johan Djourou but I must admit to being quite worried when I saw him leaving the field on Sunday. With now five(!) fullbacks hurt, it looks like Arsenal will be forced to start Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker in the middle, with Ignasi Miquel on the left and Laurent Koscielny on the right. Things will get "better" when Kieran Gibbs comes back in a week and this starting four is not the worst that Arsenal could put forward, but the overlapping runs and marauding attitude of Bacary Sagna and Andre Santos were definitely missed in the match versus City. The ability of Arsenal's first-choice fullbacks to get forward puts teams further back on their heels, especially combined with the work and speed of Walcott and Gervinho. Miquel showed signs of getting forward on Sunday and Koscielny made a run or two, but with nowhere near the consistency of Sagna and Santos. Aside from the injury concern over Robin Van Persie, I think this lack of flank play will be the main worry for the Gunners going forward.

-I haven't mentioned him in the while, mostly because it seems that good matches from him are automatic, but Wojciech Szczesny is having a monster of a season. He made several crucial saves on City attackers and gave Arsenal a chance for the entirety of the match. I heard some rumblings about how he could have done more to punch Mario Balotelli's attempt away since it eventually became David Silva's tap-in goal, but that is nit-picking a man who has been sensational all year. The young Polish international has proven himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season and I for one am so happy to have ended the Manuel Almunia era. Kudos to you Wojciech. As Always, Go Gunners.

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